AFLW star Tayla Harris breaks her silence

A now iconic photograph catapulted AFLW player Tayla Harris into the national spotlight - now she talks for the first time about the aftermath of being trolled and why she's not backing down.

"Why's there a girl playing?" the boys would whisper. "Don't touch her, you'll get in trouble," some parents would mutter. And there were those on the opposing team who'd blatantly say: "Let's smash her."

Despite being singled out, she wasn't fazed. "My response was obviously to smash them, so they were going to treat me the same as the next player on the team," Harris, 22, tells Stellar.

Harris shook off the comments she heard from the field and the sidelines, and had a game plan - to use their prejudice to her own advantage.

"I would grab the footy and either no-one would touch me and let me go through," she recalls. "Or they would annihilate me, which was my preferred option. Because I just wanted to be treated like everyone else."

Meet Tayla Harris: the AFLW star smashing her way through sport’s glass ceiling one troll at a time. (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)
Meet Tayla Harris: the AFLW star smashing her way through sport’s glass ceiling one troll at a time. (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)

 

“I just wanted to be treated like everyone else.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)
“I just wanted to be treated like everyone else.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)

DESPITE ONLY EVER wanting to stand out from the crowd due to her skills as an athlete, one otherwise ordinary day in March of this year, Tayla Harris became one of the most talked-about sportswomen in the world, and for the most unlikely reason.

Like millions of other Australians, she went to work - in her case, the Carlton Blues star played a game against the Western Bulldogs wherein the official AFLW's match report noted that "Tayla Harris was taking marks and testing her hamstrings with some huge kicks."

The next day, on March 18, a photograph of Harris executing one of those kicks was uploaded onto Seven AFL's Facebook page. And that's when her life changed forever.

The photo that started it all. (Photography: Michael Willson/AFL)
The photo that started it all. (Photography: Michael Willson/AFL)

Within hours, an onslaught of misogynistic comments about Harris's body had been posted - and soon both the image and those ugly remarks had been shared across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and promptly went viral.

Due to the sheer scale of offensive messages, Seven's immediate response was to take down the post.

It may have seemed like a quick fix, but what happened next became one of the most powerful moments in recent Australian sport.

Harris tweeted the photo of her now iconic scissor-kick on her own Twitter account alongside the caption: "Here's a pic of me at work. Think about this before your derogatory comments, animals."

Looking back on the day and speaking about the subsequent fallout for the first time, Harris says she believes those who removed the image were trying to protect her.

"The things [written] were quite violent and threatening," she says. "Some people interpreted Seven's move as not supporting women, but I don't think 7AFL were doing it maliciously, and I'm sure they would have done it differently if they knew what was going to unfold after."

With her father Warren, who never misses a game. (Picture: Instagram)
With her father Warren, who never misses a game. (Picture: Instagram)

And while Seven later issued an apology which Harris says she accepts, she tells Stellar, "Without them deleting it, this all wouldn't have happened."

"This all" included a defiant Harris continuing to stare down her trolls over the coming days, and contacting Carlton Football Club director and chief executive of Our Watch Patty Kinnersly to discuss online abuse and its links to violence against women.

"I spoke to her and said, 'Can you please confirm if this is at all related to domestic violence?'" recalls Harris. "She said it could be, and that's when I knew this must be serious.

"In real life [making misogynistic or sexist comments] is the start of real issues," she explains. "The advice from people like Patty Kinnersly said research shows domestic abuse starts somewhere, one thing is thinking it and then expressing it online; writing down your thoughts."

As a result of the abuse, Carlton provided Harris with her own security guard at the preliminary final against Fremantle.

"I had someone with me, which was awesome. I can obviously fight - I am also a boxer - but it was good to know I didn't do anything other than play footy that day," she says.

But while she was relieved to have security, the notion of living in fear deeply unnerved Harris. "It made me realise that feeling this way is an everyday reality for women."

“In real life [making misogynistic or sexist comments] is the start of real issues.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)
“In real life [making misogynistic or sexist comments] is the start of real issues.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)

 

Harris tweeted the photo of her now iconic scissor-kick on her own Twitter account alongside the caption: “Here’s a pic of me at work. Think about this before your derogatory comments, animals.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)
Harris tweeted the photo of her now iconic scissor-kick on her own Twitter account alongside the caption: “Here’s a pic of me at work. Think about this before your derogatory comments, animals.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)

The stance Harris took against her abusers made headlines across Australia and overseas, with the "sport photo that's rocking Australia" splashed everywhere from CNN to the New York Post and The Irish Times to the Calgary Sun.

"I think it is a real minority that think it is acceptable to be misogynistic and sexist," Harris says now.

"I think they will slowly be pushed aside. There may have been 50 to 100 comments on that original Facebook photo, but there were thousands [more] that supported me."

It wasn't just social media users showing that support, either. Prominent members of the AFL fraternity backed her, including Brownlow medallist Patrick Dangerfield, who posted the deleted photo with muscle-flexing emojis and the hashtag #Fthehaters.

Well-known Australian sportswomen quick to rally behind Harris included Olympic gold-medal-winning cyclist Anna Meares, fellow AFLW star Darcy Vescio and Matildas captain Sam Kerr - who, like Dangerfield, all reposted the picture of Harris on their own social media platforms with stirring messages of support.

"This is a brilliant athlete in full flight," the head of AFLW Nicole Livingstone tweeted. "Something to celebrate. Just over three years ago women did not play Australian Football at the elite level. The result of this leap - a goal from 40m out."

Harris tells Stellar she was buoyed by her peers' solidarity. "That was special but also expected because the sporting community are so supportive," she says.

Despite wanting to only ever be treated like everyone else, Harris maintains a pragmatic approach to her newfound position as a role model.

"I am proud to be a pioneer in this space," she says. "I am glad it unfolded how it did; it's been positive. The message has been read, the conversation started. It should have been sooner, but it's happening now. And every move is forward now in my view."

For Harris, that means making a change in the way women respond to online abuse. She says the conventional wisdom to simply "ignore it" is no longer good enough.

"That is not the answer," she says. "I don't ignore people in the street who would make comments, so I am not going to do it online.

"Someone posted in response to the original negative comments: 'Just ignore this, Tayla,' and someone wrote back, 'The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.' This is exactly why I took a stand. Ignoring doesn't change; ignoring accepts."

“I am proud to be a pioneer in this space.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)
“I am proud to be a pioneer in this space.” (Photography: Cameron Grayson for Stellar)


The conversation that Harris quite literally kickstarted has now continued in boardrooms and across the upper echelons of her industry.

"Her willingness to stand up and speak out, come what may, was a great act of leadership," Seven Network commentator Samantha Lane tells Stellar.

"It didn't just do the AFLW proud - she became a leader for the AFL, a code that has sometimes been lamentably slow responding to important societal issues with such strength."

Nine Network commentator and former Australian netball captain Liz Ellis is also effusive in her praise of Harris.

"She could have walked away from all the trolling and said it is too hard, and I would have totally understood as it is really hard to say: 'This is unacceptable.' I was pleased she did, because she acknowledged she was a powerful woman in her workplace but that this was not just about her.

"It was about other women who might not feel so powerful. I was so impressed by that. She spoke with such maturity and courage."

At 22, Harris has not only found herself thrust into the public eye but also become the voice of a generation; a woman who is now synonymous with the unwavering defiance and glass-ceiling symbolism displayed in that now world-famous photograph.

Harris, also a professional boxer, in the ring last year. (Picture: Instagram)
Harris, also a professional boxer, in the ring last year. (Picture: Instagram)


Asked who is the real woman behind the image, Harris admits that in a lot of ways, what you see is what you get.

Her life has been all about football since she kicked a ball around for her first club as a child in northern Brisbane's Aspley; seeing her brother Jack play the under-7s AFL is what inspired her to sign up.

Footy runs in the family. Her father Warren, a marine mechanic, played Aussie Rules at state level in Queensland and was offered a spot to train and possibly play with Carlton but turned it down due to work commitments.

"He had an opportunity to play for Carlton, to move to Melbourne; he didn't take it and he wished he did," she recalls.

So when Harris, who debuted for the Brisbane Lions, was offered the same opportunity, she fulfilled the dream her father regretfully gave up.

Her guernsey number of 22 is a tribute to him, as he wore the same number.

She says her parents constantly encouraged her as she slowly rose from junior to elite player, with both her dad and her mum Lisa always on the sidelines.

"They were supporting me all the time - Dad often running water and coaching."

She played with the boys in the under-14s AFL competition until she was told to stop. At 14, she earned a spot in the under-18s women's national championship to play for Queensland.

And at 15, she was voted the best and fairest player in Queensland's top competition.

Mindful of the influence she now wields as a household name, Harris is keen to encourage other young girls to follow in her footsteps.

"I am very conscious of my actions and I have had to learn that everything I do is going to influence someone else," she says. "And I am really OK with that.

"The most humbling part [of the furore] was the lovely messages and comments I received from all sorts of people - older, younger - saying you've helped me stand up. That's what I have taken from it.

"The photo is in the distance for me; it's obviously the message now. The impact is the story."

Tayla Harris is the cover star for this Sunday’s Stellar.
Tayla Harris is the cover star for this Sunday’s Stellar.

As for forever being known for that photograph, Harris is quick to see the lighter side.

"I am just glad I am not doing a really ugly face, or that my regrowth isn't too bad and that my tan is good," she says with a laugh. "Look, I am playing footy in the photo... it just adds to the narrative that I kicked a goal [too]."

Harris, who dreams of one day winning an Australian boxing title, now has her head firmly back in the game and is enjoying the physicality of AFL more than ever.

"It's quite apparent lately that one of my favourite things is tackling and hitting bodies," says Harris.

"That's actually come from those experiences I had as a little girl playing footy. If I can be fair and really strong and take the wind out of someone, that's the best way I can respond to adversity.

"That was Dad's advice: the best way to show them is to show them up."



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